The decision to give something a name, whether that be your struggling rock band, your first dog, your only child, or your game development studio is no simple task. For better or worse, you might be stuck with it.
Names carry weight. They give a group of people and the products they create an identity. For companies like Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, Sega and others, those names are associated with memories, even if those words have little meaning.
Sega, for example, is simply a portmanteau of the words "service" and "games." Nintendo, officially, a direct translation from the Japanese to mean "leave luck to heaven." And Sony, well, that's a fabricated word, a twist on the Latin word "sonus" and the familiar "sonny."
But how did video game developers decide upon the likes of Insomniac, Naughty Dog, Harmonix, and the recently re-christened Visceral Games? And what the heck is a Capybara, anyway? We asked game development studio founders to explain themselves.
The studio that started us wondering just how one settles on an identity was the young Capybara Games, a Toronto-based independent group of initially a dozen game developers. The team most recently had a double showing at E3 2009, with Critter Crunch for the PlayStation Network and Might & Magic Clash of Heroes for the Nintendo DS.
The studio is named for the world's largest rodent, the capybara, a relative of the guinea pig that can weigh more than 200 pounds. How exactly does one decide to identify oneself with a giant South American mammal?
"Unfortunately, with 12 very different opinions on what makes a cool name, coming to a unanimous decision was impossible," Nathan Vella, Capybara co-founder and Art Director said. "We bitched at each other for far too long before deciding on a fair and democratic process. Names of varying quality, from ‘surprisingly awesome' to ‘literally the worst name ever' were tossed out by members of the group, and each person chose their Top 3 from the pool."
No one, however, decided the name "Capybara" was "surprisingly awesome."
"In the end, Capybara was unanimously everyone's second or third choice… and so it won the name election," Vella said. "It was the name everyone thought was 'ok' but didn't really want to win. That's democracy for you... you're not picking the best, you're picking the least-worst."
There was an unintended metaphor in Capybara's "least-worst" choice, Vella says.
"At this point we had not yet realized the irony or accuracy that we were naming our 'guinea pig' of a company after the world's largest guinea pig. In hindsight we totally should have caught on to that earlier."
The developer informally calls itself Capy, as seen in its logo. But it employs a "modern day mustache hero" known as Hank Hudson as its official mascot, not a capybara—though Vella jokes it has flirted with taking an Argentinean agency up on its offer to open a capybara farm.
Another developer that didn't go with its first choice for a studio name was Resistance and Ratchet & Clank developers Insomniac Games.
Before the Burbank, California area developer shipped its first game—the first-person shooter Disruptor for the original PlayStation—it went by a trio of other names: Planet X Software, Outzone Software and Xtreme Software. That last name almost stuck, as the company had already incorporated itself as Xtreme prior to announcing Disruptor. Then it found out someone else, a database company, was already using it.
"We only had a few weeks to come up with something new," says Ted Price, president of what we now call Insomniac Games. "So we hung a whiteboard in the office and began writing down everything we could think of. There must have been 200 names on the list."
Some of the rejects? Ragnarok, Black Sun, Ice-9 Games and Blue Moon Turtle.
"Seriously, Blue Moon Turtle," Price admitted. "However, every name we liked was already being used by someone else. We actually got permission from Kurt Vonnegut's estate to use Ice-9 but someone else was already using it without permission."
Faced with the prospect of launching Disruptor anonymously, a last minute suggestion arrived—Insomniac.
"It was one of those rare moments when everyone looked at each other and said 'Yeah, that works,'" according to Price. "It definitely described us at the time. We sure weren't sleeping much."
From our discussions with game development studio founders, it seems like the best piece of advice they can impart about naming one's studio is to check early (and often) to see if someone else is using your descriptor of choice.
Such is the case with Harmonix, creators of Guitar Hero, Rock Band and, when it first formed, "music software technology."
Eran Egozy, Harmonix co-founder and Chief Technical Officer, says that he and general manager Alex Rigopulos debated over a key aspect of the developer's name, whether to spell it Harmonics or Harmonix.
"The 'ix' ending won," Egozy says. "Hey, it was the mid-90s." To be clear, the company's full name is, in Egozy's words, the "somewhat awkward" Harmonix Music Systems.
"Unfortunately, we did not check to see that harmonix.com was already taken when we named the company," Egozy says. "So our domain name is harmonixmusic.com. If we had checked, maybe the company would be called something else now."
One video game maker that did get an opportunity to change its identity was Dead Space and Dante's Inferno developer Visceral Games, once known by the more sterile EA Redwood Shores or, unfortunately and informally, EARS.
Glen Schofield, general manager of the newly re-branded Visceral Games explains.
"There were a bunch of names we threw away," he says, culling hundreds of ideas and concepts solicited from Redwood Shores team members. "I got tons of great ones but I really wanted a name that had a real meaning for our studio. Visceral just worked perfect as it is a term we use all the time to describe the feeling we want in our combat. It captured our more mature or action type games we make."
The developer's very web site is behind an age-gate, highlighting its mature focus.
The name change had support from the top, with president of EA Games label Frank Gibeau and CEO John Riccitiello supporting a more autonomous model, already seen at individually named EA developers like Criterion, BioWare and Pandemic.
"They welcomed the idea of studios having a distinct identity," Schofield says. "Once I mentioned it to Frank he kept asking me when we were announcing the name. He wanted it changed right away, it was pretty funny. But obviously once you have a name you then have months of creative and legal wrangling before you can go live with it."
Visceral's coming out party, as it were, was a little different from start up studios who sometimes choose their names under the gun. It had time to plan, hire an outside brand agency, and build a style guide for the new identity. Then it went public with a studio-wide meeting, press release, site launch and a tasty visceral treat.
"We painted the walls and hung up mounted artwork from our games," Schofield says. "We had posters, decals and a shirt for everyone. There was even a huge Visceral skull cake waiting. It's the only time we've ever had to have a cake maker sign an NDA!"
And that was that. "When the meeting was over the entire place was now changed and we were ready to move on as Visceral Games."
That sense of identity is something that Uncharted developers Naughty Dog share, with employees (positively) referred to as "the Dogs." The explanation for that choice is much simpler than some of the other stories we'd heard.
The company, formerly known as JAM—hey, it was the mid-80s—when it shipped its first game Ski Crazed for the Apple II, was changed to Naughty Dog the next decade. Founders Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin were "dog lovers," with Rubin often taking his puppy to work.
That continues today, with current co-presidents Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra giving their dogs a second home at the Naughty Dog offices.
And the names of their dogs? Pogo and Trumpet. How those names came to be, we'll just have to wonder.